May 11, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Hundreds of children died in Native American boarding schools, report finds

Photo of rows of graves sitting in brown dirt as a person encircles one with sage smoke

The Sherman Indian School Cemetery in Riverside, California on July 18, 2021. Photo: Cindy Yamanaka/MediaNews Group/The Riverside Press-Enterprise via Getty Images

Native American children at the U.S.'s 408 federal Indian boarding schools suffered whippings, sexual abuse, manual labor and severe malnourishment between 1819 and 1969 as part of the American government's campaign to compel their assimilation, according to a report released Wednesday by the Interior Department.

The big picture: Interior Secretary Deb Haaland authorized an investigation into the U.S.'s Indian boarding school system after the discovery of Indigenous children's remains at an old Canadian residential school site renewed attention on Americas' history of genocide against Indigenous peoples. The probe has since identified marked or unmarked burial sites at roughly 53 different schools.

Details: The federal residential school system was founded as part of an effort to eradicate Indigenous languages and cultures.

  • "Federal records indicate that the United States viewed official disruption to the Indian family unit as part of Federal Indian policy to assimilate Indian children," the report notes.
  • Initial research shows that hundreds of Indigenous children died throughout the system. The continued investigation is likely to reveal the actual number of deaths to be in the thousands or tens of thousands, the report notes.
Indian boarding schools in the U.S.
Data: BIA; Map: Jared Whalen/Axios

The systematic "identity-alteration methodologies" employed by these schools included:

  • Forcing Native American children to use English names
  • Cutting their hair
  • Requiring standard uniforms
  • Barring cultural and religious practices as well as use of Native languages

These rules were often enforced through punishments that took the form of solitary confinement, whipping, withholding food and slapping.

  • The provision of care was "grossly inadequate." The Interior identified several "well-documented" instances of physical, sexual and emotional abuse; disease; malnourishment; overcrowding; and lack of health care.
  • Manual labor was also a common feature — in 1903 at the Mescalero Boarding School in New Mexico, Mescalero Apache boys sawed over 70,000 feet of lumber and made upward of 120,000 bricks.
  • Many children tried to escape but were found, brought back and punished, according to the report. The damage had long-term health effects.

Worth noting: "The deaths of Indian children while under the care of the Federal Government, or federally supported institutions, led to the breakup of Indian families and the erosion of Indian Tribes, Alaska Native Villages, and the Native Hawaiian Community," the report states.

  • "The Department must fully account for its role in this effort and renounce forced assimilation ... as a legitimate policy objective."

What they're saying: "I came from ancestors who endured the horrors of the Indian boarding school assimilation policies carried out by the same department that I now lead," a visibly emotional Haaland said Wednesday at a press conference.

  • "Many children like them never made it back to their homes. Each of those children is a missing family member, a person who was not able to live out their purpose on this earth."
  • "Recognizing the impacts of the federal Indian boarding school system cannot just be a historical reckoning," she added. "We must also chart a path forward to deal with these legacy issues to address the intergenerational impact ... and to promote spiritual and emotional healing in our communities."

What to watch: Haaland announced Wednesday the launch of a yearlong tour across the U.S. that will allow survivors the opportunity to share their stories and connect with trauma-informed support.

  • The document released Wednesday is volume one of the investigation, which will continue under Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland.

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Editor's note: This story has been updated with comments from Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

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